Sunday, May 20, 2012

Exercise and Anxiety

Let me just start by explaining that this has been a post 2 weeks in the making.  I have a lot of thoughts about this topic, so there were many directions I could take.  Please remember that this is my opinion based on my experiences and facts I have researched.  I do understand that there is a lot of information that I have not come across, and that everyone is different and what has happened in my life may not happen in everyone's.

I recently read an article on Well and Good NYC about the effects of exercise on anxiety as compared with anti-anxiety medications, specifically benzodiazapenes.  This article got me thinking about my life.  Over the course of the past 10 years, I have been diagnosed with many different acronyms: ADD, OCD, GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), PAD (panic attack disorder), etc. etc. etc. Just having to list all the things that are "wrong with me" is enough to make someone a little nutty! I spent a lot of time looking for a reason why I was "not normal" and why I had so many idiosyncrasies.

Xanax - miracle drug??
I took Zoloft and then Lexapro for about 4 years.  When I tapered off of Lexapro (with support from a psychiatrist), I was beyond excited to be medication free. Unfortunately, I had everyday stresses that I had a hard time handling.  I was in the midst of finishing up my last year of graduate school and I was working with a co-worker who made it very clear that she did not respect me or care for me.  And I got little support from the administration or validation that my concerns were real. Like many people in this New York Magazine article, I started carrying Xanax in my bag in case something got too stressful and I couldn't escape it.  In order to cope with my challenging work environment, I took a Xanax occasionally, which drowned out the background anxiety and allowed me to focus on my life.  Basically, it made me feel less anxious without having any other effects.  Honestly, it really did work... short term.

But is taking Xanax a long-term solution?  It wasn't for me.  If I needed medication to handle my stress, I probably needed to be back on an SSRI that would modulate my anxiety on a daily basis, rather than having an emergency back up.  Thinking about it now, it's like my asthma.  I have the rescue inhaler, but is my asthma really well controlled if I need to use it every day?  Xanax was my rescue inhaler and my anxiety was not well controlled. (Note: I never took Xanax every day, its just a comparison.)

Fortunately, I found a long-term solution to that work issue; I left the job and took one at a wonderful pre-school as an interim step before I moved to NYC.  It was a fantastic move, and one can never underestimate the power of a change of scenery.

When I moved to NYC, I began having all my little issues creep back up.  It was a very tough transition for me, and also the first time since I was 18 that I was not regularly seeing a therapist. Then it dawned on me... am I going to either be in therapy or on medication for the rest of my life?  None of these options sounded viable to me; I want to have children one day, so at some point I will have to be pregnant and not take SSRIs, and I'd rather not spend thousands of dollars a year on therapy.

Last spring, my fiancee, who was in the middle of a master's program in Social Work, gave me a book about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  I decided to find a professional who specialized in CBT.  Through work with her and lots of my own homework, I dedicated months to looking at my life differently.  Last August, my friends and I climbed Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and that was really my big test.

I went into the climb very negative (ask any of my friends), but about 15 minutes in, with some support from my amazing friends, I thought to myself, "OK, this is still actually happening, I may as well suck it up and make the best of it." So I did.  I ended up having THE BEST time because I changed my attitude.  And once I was able to change my attitude, I was able to see how exercise can benefit me and I was able to feel this "high" from succeeding.

Me and my friends at the top of Mt. Washington.  We did it! (I'm the one furthest on the left)

While the CBT allowed me to look at the experience differently, I also think my therapy would have been incomplete without that experience and the subsequent months.  After climbing Mt. Washington, I had a surge of self-esteem and pride.  I was motivated to work out and change myself.  I also stopped making millions of excuses to get out of something that might be slightly uncomfortable.  Hey, I climbed a mountain and survived, so a little run on a treadmill should be nothing.

I agree with the Well + Good NYC article.  I think exercise has been better for me for my anxiety than Xanax or Lexapro or whatever other medications are available.  When I'm exercising, I'm thinking in the moment.  What is the point in thinking about what has happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future?  It does me no good - I need to concentrate on getting through that moment and tackle challenges as they come up, not speculate as to what might come up.  And that has really carried over into the rest of my life as well.

One of my favorite quotes: "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." - Albert Camus

What relieves your anxiety? Do you have a favorite activity that relieves stress?  How do you live in the moment?


  1. I think this is great. The nyt well blog also goes into exercise as treatment (for like everything!). link:

    1. Thanks for the article! It was very interesting :)

  2. Great post, dude. Not to sound too cheesy, but your ability and willingness to take on challenges is really impressive. Keep up the good work and the blogging.

    I think exercise almost always best done in a group- combining the physiological benefits of being distracted from stress, endorphins, etc with the bonus of getting (hopefully) encouragement from friends and a feeling of mutual accomplishment. You should try playing a sport!

    1. Unfortunately, I'm lacking in the hand-eye coordination department for most sports! But if you find a sport that does not require any, I'm game!

  3. So by changing your ATtitude you were able to change your ALtitude? eh eh? Seriously though, it's really great to hear that hiking Mt. Washington was a turning point for you and that exercise is now such an effective tool you can use to stay present and manage anxiety. Keep it up!

    I second the group exercise idea.. though, in my experience (and this is probably obvious), it's highly dependent on the group. It can be great if you're comfortable with your teammates, but can suck hard if you're not.. You could also consider going on more hikes with your friends! It sounds like they are awesome people who would go hiking again with you!

    1. I would love to go hiking! I hear there are great mountains out in New York State that I'd love to try out